President Bush is not to be envied. The life-and-death issue of federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research is not a winnable one, in public-relations terms, for the president.
Plus recent and upcoming events only make matters worse for him, in some respects.
Earlier this month, he spent his first visit to New York City since becoming president at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he conferred the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor the U.S. bestows upon civilians—posthumously on Cardinal John O'Connor. Later this month, he'll meet with Pope John Paul II in Rome.
Every event of this kind builds the public perception that, if the president decides to protect embryos by prohibiting the federally funded destruction of them for their stem cells, he is “caving to Catholic pressure.”
Nor does it help him that, after he gave a speech at the opening of the Pope John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., some dubbed him “the second Catholic president.”
The press, of course, is buzzing: cover stories in the national newsweekly magazines, endless chatter on the talking-head TV shows, hot call-in debates on radio talk shows.
Bush's allies and Cabinet secretaries, including prominent Catholics like former Florida U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, are giving the president no aid, spouting off instead about how destroying embryos is the “genuinely pro-life” position.
Meanwhile, there are a few stories here and there, mostly ignored or downplayed, about the promise of adult stem cells—which may be more flexible and are certainly more abundant, not requiring an endless stream of human lives sacrificed to research.
It's no surprise, then, that many Americans aren't sure what the to-do is all about. And that includes not a few of the people doing the talking, for whom the “fuss” is the story.
In early June, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported on a compromise position that leading Catholic intellectuals, sometime advisers to the president, were ready to accept from the White House. Never mind that, in fact, the rumors of a compromise position were greatly exaggerated.
In a statement released the following weekend, the Catholic advisers in question—Prince-ton's Robert P. George, Crisis magazine editor Deal Hudson and Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute—made clear that they do not favor a compromise. Their statement came as a relief to activists struggling against the media tide.
In fact, as Richard Doerflinger, the point man for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on stem cells, and now a regular on the talking-heads circuit, has said: The status quo, with no one pressing for an all-out ban on embryonic-stem-cell research is the compromise position.
The preferred position would be to prohibit the embryo-destroying research entirely, not just reroute federal dollars to research with adult stem cells and let private researchers destroy all the embryos they want.
As Fred Barnes has pointed out in The Weekly Standard, Bush would have been a lot better off had he done what many proposed he do upon being sworn in: immediately issue an order barring federal funding for stem-cell research that destroys human embryos, and simultaneously propose increasing federal funds for research on adult cells.
Needless to say, Bush did not take that advice. And now he finds himself faced with a vicious media spotlight on a painful issue that not many Americans, including reporters, understand.
Now what's he going to do?
Why not wait a while? For starters, that would give Americans time to get up to speed on the issues involved. That's bound to happen eventually, as even the quick-hit media will have to reckon with hard-hitting, if low-profile, reports on the dangers of working with stem cells which have appeared in respected research journals.
It was not long ago that activists claimed fetal tissue would bring a cure to diseases like Parkinson's. But as they have tested those utopian claims on human beings, some of the results have been tragic.
The Register reported on one study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, back in March (“Fetal-Tissue Transplants Cripple Patients,” said the headline.
The study showed that 15% of the Parkinson's patients who received fetal brain transplants experienced runaway dyskinesia—uncontrollable muscle spasms that cause the patients to twitch, writhe and fling their limbs spasmodically. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Paul Greene, a Columbia neurologist, called the study “tragic” and “catastrophic.”
There's another reason the president should wait: The summer's no time to do something unpopular, because it's the slowest time of year for the news. The mainstream media is standing by, starving, eager to devour any kernel that comes its way.
Imagine what the news hounds would do if presented with the chance to juxtapose President Bush kissing the papal ring in the Vatican City—days after or before announcing a ban on federal funding of embryo-destroying stem-cell research—with heartbreaking pictures of Morton Kondracke's Parkinson's-stricken wife Millie (she of the best seller Saving Millie).
Right now the media is having its way with its favorite kind of easy feed, a potential sex-and-murder scandal in the nation's capital. Bush should lay low.
Then, in the fall, he should do the right thing, the thing he promised to do in his presidential campaign: Prohibit once and for all the federal subsidy for the killing of innocent human beings.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is an associate editor of National Review (http://www.nationalreview.com).